A Retrospective: 1995–2000
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2005, Volume 12, #6
Written by John Metzger
With the release of its 1995 effort Trace, Son Volt began its life with more promise than most ensembles, but neither of its subsequent endeavors (Straightaways and Wide Swing Tremolo) proved from start-to-finish to be nearly as captivating. Instead of moving forward, the group seemed to be moving from side to side as it endlessly repeated its familiar patterns while grappling for direction. In 2000, the band met the same fate as its predecessor — the seminal alt-country act Uncle Tupelo — when Jay Farrar left to embark upon a new project.
With a revitalized and revamped rendition of Son Volt slated to make its recording debut in July, now is as good a time as any to reflect upon the group’s short-lived past, though that admittedly is somewhat of a tricky proposition. Nevertheless, A Retrospective: 1995–2000 successfully avoids becoming as monotonic as one might expect. The reason is simple: Only half of its tracks were culled directly from the band’s trio of albums, and these are interspersed with a hodgepodge of rarities that include previously unreleased demos, live cuts, and cover songs; promotional pieces; and contributions to a variety of compiled tribute, benefit, and soundtrack efforts. As a result, A Retrospective: 1995–2000 offers a somewhat more diverse glimpse of Son Volt’s canon, even if one-third of its material was penned by someone other than front man Jay Farrar.
Indeed, for a career-spanning remembrance to lean so heavily upon curiosities undoubtedly is telling, but the pacing of A Retrospective: 1995–2000 also provides a vast improvement over Son Volt’s latter two outings. Regardless, at its best, the group undeniably was a force with which to be reckoned, and when it wanted to do so, it had the capability of dabbling in punchy, crunchy, guitar-driven rock (Drown, Straightface, Picking Up the Signal). Likewise, Farrar consistently has had a keen eye for capturing the grainy details of life in middle America, and on songs like the somber, country-tinged folk of Too Early, tragedy pours like blood through his world-weary vocals. In other words, A Retrospective: 1995–2000 highlights the many shadings of Son Volt’s minimalist essence, while also presenting its traditional-minded material in a manner that frequently surpasses the sometimes claustrophobic ebb and flow of the albums from which its selections were taken. ˝
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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